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Whether To Adopt

07.18.11 | 3 Comments


CATEGORIES arts administrators, new technology, social media

As a result of fairly assiduous Twitter use, I have a very respectable score on Klout. However, now that Klout is about to start factoring in FourSquare activity, I have begun “checking in” these past few days, though I registered at least a year ago and find it somewhat juvenile (Badges? I don’t need no stinking badges). I am one of the select 10 million (an oxymoron to be sure) who has secured a Google+ account, however thus far I have made but a single post, comparing the coming Facebook/Google+ wars to the VHS/Beta wars of some two decades ago. I make only the occasional Facebook post, but at least I no longer restrict my friends to those I met in school. I keep up on LinkedIn, but only connect to people with whom I have genuinely worked, to maintain the integrity of the platform. My PeerIndex score is lousy, due I believe, to a tech error (reported, unresolved) that leaves out the vast majority of my Twitter activity. I’ve largely given up on Quora, because the questions being posed in the areas where I have some expertise are predominantly: a) subjective, b) silly and c) reminiscent of the Monty Python “How To Do It” sketch which offered simple instructions on things like how to be a gynecologist. I captured one of the free Spotify accounts earlier this week due to a car company promotion (I already forget the brand, and I don’t own or intend to buy a car anyway), although I have listened to only a single song.

Enough?

Let me also remind you that these are all personal accounts, as I’m in a job transition. So all of the above is either building my personal brand, providing fun as I decompress from a series of stressful jobs, or completely wasting time that I could be using more productively.

If this is what I’m facing, I can’t help but wonder how arts organizations are wading through the developing, churning world of social media, since every week seems to produce a new site or app designed to revolutionize how we relate to each other, be it as individuals, businesses & patrons, artists & audiences, and so on.

Traditionally, arts organizations haven’t been early technological adopters, largely because of a lack of internal expertise and the high cost of entry. I am old enough to remember Hartford Stage’s first fax machine (a wonder), first computer network (so much better than electric typewriters), first Mac and desktop publishing software (which we discovered didn’t actually design things for us) and first computerized ticketing system (somebody else’s headache, but terrific). But that technological adoption, in the latter half of the 1980s (e-mail became a standard while I was at Goodspeed Musicals), seems slow by the standards of today.

One significant factor in today’s more rapid adoption is that of cost. The most prevalent tools of communication at the moment, many name-checked above, are free. If you’ve got a computer and internet access (and for real convenience, a smartphone as well), you’ve pretty much got what your organization needs to jump into the fray.

But the challenge is deciding whether to do so or when to do so. Certainly if a promising new service appears that requires you to secure your company’s name from squatters (remember the domain name rush that characterized the spread of the internet itself?), it should be done right away. But beyond that, there needs to be a certain amount of wait and see.

If your organization has an in-house IT department (now the norm at large not-for-profits), there are probably one or more technologically savvy individuals forever lobbying every department about a new tool that can make their work more efficient, from the newest in collaborative CAD programs to online donation systems. Development, marketing and p.r. departments are watching social media in particular, both to give the organization an edge and to show the public that the organization has an edge.

But it has generally been acknowledged that just as freedom isn’t free, neither is social media. The cost is one of time and brainpower: does the organization have someone on staff who has the conceptual and technical savvy to figure out how to best use the cascading platforms? Can the organization afford to give over a portion of the time of an existing staffer to that pursuit, or to hire someone to focus exclusively on this area? Is the cost-value equation favorable for being active and meaningful on multiple platforms? What is the ultimate goal for the organization?

I am hardly the first person to pose these questions. Indeed, my Twitter feed is bombarded by advice — and solicitations to pay for advice — on how to best utilize these resources. In fact, I’m pretty stunned by the number of people who proclaim themselves as social media experts or gurus, in a field that is, in terms of widespread awareness and usage, maybe six or seven years old. I’m not being dismissive of true experts and explorers, as I’ve spoken with some very shrewd folks, but just as companies paid a fortune for their first websites because the practice of building them was so new, I fear the ratio of people with true insight to those who merely post a lot on Facebook poses risks for less sophisticated groups who feel they may be missing an important trend.

So I want to offer a single piece of pragmatic advice about adopting a new platform or, as the once dominant MySpace has shown, when to abandon one. That advice is to analyze, in a full organizational survey, why you’re doing it. What do you hope to achieve? Can the platform conceivably do what you want? Has it reached a tipping point where more than just first-adopters are playing with it?

As an aside, I should say that in most cases, the leaders of large organizations are ill-equipped to make these decisions, because they haven’t the time to understand these new forms of media themselves. They know how to search on Google, they can click on the link for a funny YouTube video, they may have a personal Facebook page, but their jobs don’t afford them the time to delve deeply into these areas. Indeed, I fear that many of them feel they are above it; at a recent LORT conference, I did a show of hands survey of managers asking how many knew their organizations were using social media, and how many had their own presence. Many hands appeared for the first question, but few remained up after the second. Yet these platforms are not just “for the kids,” and they certainly shouldn’t be relegated to intern-level responsibility, as is so often the case. This will change over time, as succeeding generations will take social media as simply the norm, not innovation.

Social media, like it or not, is transforming how people relate to each other, to the businesses they frequent and the organizations where they participate and which they may support. It is ignored at its own peril, but it is also embraced, if not with danger, then with caution.

While adopting a child is significantly more profound on many lives, adoption of social media platforms demands some marginally equivalent level of self-scrutiny and awareness. Otherwise, your organization will find itself making errors in public perception and in allocation of resources. And as we’re learning again and again, we post, tweet and share at our own risk. If a twitter revolution can ostensibly bring down a dictator, think what could happen if you use it wrong – or it turns on you, like an ungrateful child.

P.S. Those who found this essay online probably find it to be obvious, or old news, precisely because you’re far enough into the social world to be ahead of the thinking herein. But perhaps you have some discussion to provoke within your organization, or someone to persuade. Maybe this can help.

Howard Sherman

Howard Sherman has nearly three decades of both executive and staff experience at such companies as American Theatre Wing, O'Neill Theatre Center, Geva Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, Hartford Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club and Westport Country Playhouse. He tweets as @hesherman.

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  • This is a thoughtful perspective that I think can be very useful for current social media managers at arts organizations to share with their executive and artistic leaders.  Digging deeper, I know many cases where the leaders have embraced an organization’s use of social media but do not directly participate. One of the wonderful aspects of these tools is the transparency they provide – a humanizing aspect for organizations. It would amazing to see more artistic directors tweeting.

    I believe an even larger issue is for arts organizations to band together and make it known to the social media companies themselves that we are interested in adopting their tools and sharing them with our audiences but that the unlocking of a 10% off special on Foursquare might not be the most useful for us. How can we use these tools to allow people who are supporters of the arts – I’m thinking specifically theater and new work as that is where I am employed – to feel engaged and “rewarded” for their support? Is social media at all useful to us if you take away the monetary focus?  I believe that it is.

  • Chip Michael

    Howard, 

    Nice, clear thoughts… surprisingly similar to my own at http://interchangingidioms.blogspot.com/2011/07/getting-lost-in-social-media-maze.html  

    It’s also odd that we’re both out of work so spending some of this extra time building our social media scores.  

    One of the problems with how social media works in its current conception doesn’t really fit the established marketing arm of most symphony orchestras (let alone other arts organizations).  Marketing for symphonies still look at marketing as press releases and their audience as symphony lovers.  So, pops concerts are woefully mis-marketed. Twitter and facebook are the place for just press releases, but really need interaction.  Unless symphonies start looking at hiring someone to do this interaction with their audience, they’re missing the “power” of social media.  

    Now, having said that many organizations are trying.  Twitter names Philaorchestra,   Dallassymphony are both fairly interactive with their followers and searching for people who tweet relative topics.  But they’re in the minority.  

  • eg82

    I have a simple suggestion for arts organizations using social media. If I post a question through your Twitter account or on your Facebook page, please answer me. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many theatre companies and Broadway shows think social media is a one-way street – they post information or retweet positive reviews and that’s about it. Good luck getting anyone who manages the FB page or Twitter account to acknowledge you! Some are great at this but others are not.


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